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The WCTU and Carry Nation, too

Part I of a special series on the centennial of prohibition

Andrew Volstead, namesake of the Volstead Act.

Starting one century ago — from 1920 to 1933 — it was illegal in the United States to manufacture, sell or transport intoxicating liquors (above .5 percent alcohol by volume), save for a few exceptions such as for medicinal purposes or ceremonial wine for mass.

On October 18, 1919 Andrew J. Volstead proposed a law that would shake the earth under the U.S. — and beyond. Despite a veto of then-president Woodrow Wilson, that law came into effect on January 20, 1920 and henceforth was referred to as the Volstead Act, despite the fact that the most prominent author of this piece of legislature was Wayne Wheeler. He came from Ohio and had been involved in making the U.S.A. dry since 1893.

The government euphemistically dubbed this period “The Noble Experiment.” The experiment that would end on December 5, 1933, after having caused an incredible amount of damage in the country, surfacing as serious, structured undermining of health, law and order, culminating in a violent, deadly crime wave never seen before, claiming thousands of victims.

The average health of Americans — those who still wanted to enjoy an alcoholic beverage — suffered from illegally distilled bathtub gin, literally manufactured in thousands of households and indeed using the bathtub as equipment. The drink was often tainted with poisonous fluids like cleaning products or varnish. Tobacco was used as a coloring agent to make the drink look more authentic. Outside the house, police and gangsters the likes of Al Capone fought over huge quantities of smuggled and illegally imported whiskey. Not only were many innocent and guilty civilians were shot or murdered, but also the American whiskey industry was nearly destroyed by “the noble experiment” — when the smoke finally cleared in 1933, the vast majority of distilleries had vanished into thin air.

The WCTU and roots of a movement

The seed of Prohibition was sown 50 years earlier by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and its determined president Frances Willard. In 1874 they created the country’s first temperance wave. Large groups of women took to the streets in organized demonstrations, putting saloons under siege while singing psalms and proclaiming texts against the demon alcohol.

There was certainly some truth in what they said, illustrated by many a sad example of men spending their entire week’s wage on liquor. As a result the women and children suffered hunger, cold and physical abuse. In the person of Francis Willard, the WCTU, an organization that gained a worldwide presence in 1889, had an excellent patron saint. Born in New York in 1839, she moved with her family via Ohio to Wisconsin, where she made a solemn pledge at age 10, together with her older sister:

“To quench our thirst we’ll always bring

Cold water from the well or spring;

So here we pledge perpetual hate

To all that can intoxicate.”

At its core Willard’s approach was a peaceful one. That cannot be said of one of her most fanatic disciples, Cara “Carry” Amelia Moore. Carry (sometimes spelled Carrie) was born in Kentucky, the heartland of bourbon, in 1846. After an unfortunate marriage with a physician and alcoholic named Charles Gloyd, who managed to drink himself to death a mere month after the wedding, Carry left for Kansas. There she met and married David Nation, a lawyer. Her new surname would become a dreaded word for many a publican. Carry Nation went on a real crusade — and not a small one.

Now there is nothing wrong with spreading the “good news,” so long as it is peaceful and not forced upon people. Carry however had slowly transformed into a religious fundamentalist. She took on the devil himself and was — in her own words — on speaking terms with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and a whole bunch of disciples. Her opinion about men was short and harsh: “Men are nicotine-soaked, beer-besmirched, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devils.”

On a warm summer day in 1899, Carry Nation directed her first attack ever on the saloon of Mort Strong, in her hometown Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Strong honored his name and threw her out without even flinching. But only a few weeks later, as a direct consequence of her tirades, four of the six saloons in town were closed.

Carry Nation rode on the steadily growing wave of the temperance movement — a wave sweeping the U.S., Canada and Europe, especially Scotland, England and Ireland. In February 1900 her quest became more aggressive and she demolished a pharmacy with a sledgehammer, solely because the shop sold brandy. She poured the golden liquid in the gutter and torched it. This event was the starting point for a whole series of destruction in Oklahoma and Kansas. In 1901 Carry used a small hatchet on a raid for the first time, a utensil that would become her trademark. Her radius of action grew and she continued her handiwork as far as California and New York, but changed her modus operandi. She would warn the owner of the targeted saloon with a short letter, reading, “I come to rescue you as well as those that you are murdering. Do not delay, for he that being often reproved hardeneth his neck shall suddenly be destroyed and that without remedy. We invite you to join us in the destruction of the machinery hell has set up here on earth to literally devour humanity.”

Soon her actions were widely reported on the front pages of newspapers in London and New York. After a successful raid, people often threw rotten eggs at Nation; she was sometimes severely beaten and thrown in jail. That often proved to be a difficult task because Mrs. Nation was six feet three inches tall and weighed nearly 180 pounds. In her all-black clothes she must have been a threatening sight. One story goes that once it took four policemen to pin her to the ground and arrest her. To pay her fines, Carry’s disciples sold souvenirs in the form of a mini-replica of her trademark hatchet, which became world-famous.

Various publicans hit back and changed the name of their bars to Carry Nation Saloon. Others developed Carry Nation whiskey bottles in an attempt to humiliate her. These bottles bore a striking resemblance to her figure.

It took poor Mr. David Nation 24 years before he had enough of his wife’s violent behavior and filed for divorce on grounds of abandonment. Meanwhile Carry gathered more disciples who were fueled by her fiery speeches until she died of a stroke on June 2, 1911. Warring prophet of the cause, she did not see national Prohibition come into effect.

Slante mhath,

The Whisky Couple

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